Women’s Ways of Cycling: Finding the Joy, Freedom, and Empowerment of Bicycle Commuting in the City

By Susanne Michaud, DPT, OCS

I love Seattle. I’ve lived here since 1987 so can attest to the changes in density and traffic patterns. The conversations about the Seattle then versus now often degrade into complaints about the traffic. I can recuse myself of these negative grumblings because I have the magic carpet ride for transportation – my bike. When I do get in my car to commute to work, the sticky traffic issues reinforce my commitment to staying out of my car and on my bike. During most commute times, I’m able to ride the 4 miles faster by bike than by car. I can honestly say I feel safer, freer, and happier getting around by bike (or foot) than by car. Part of my continued love affair with this city is that I get to discover more of it by being outside and seeing it at a slightly slower pace on 2 wheels.

Southbound traffic on Aurora in Woodland Park

Feeling safe and free to ride a bike, however, is not the experience of many women in this and many other US cities. Only 25% of the bicyclists on the Seattle roads are women.1 Currently only 1% of trips in the US are done by bike. In the United Kingdom, men do 3x as many cycling journeys and travel nearly 4x as far as women on bikes do. 2 The primary reason for this is that women tend to be more risk-averse than men. These concerns around safety are well founded by women, given that fatalities and serious injuries occur 5x more in the USA than in the Netherlands. One might say that women are the “indicator species” for safe roads. 3 The trouble is that with fewer women riding bikes, there are fewer women advocating for the need for safe bicycling infrastructure.

Safe cycling conditions can and do exist internationally. In the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark women cycle as much as men with rates falling only slightly with age.4 In the Netherlands women make up 55% of the trips by bike. Clearly these countries know how to address the issues that are important to women: safety, dedicated cycling lanes and infrastructure, motorist and cyclist education on the rules of the road, and cultural norms.  

My first hand experience as a bike commuter over the past 32 years is that the infrastructure and dedicated bike lanes have improved immensely in Seattle. In 1987, the only bike lane to speak of was the Burke Gillman trail. Today Seattle has an extensive system of dedicated lanes and routes with great advocacy from organizations such as the Cascade Bike Club and Washington Bikes. Although we have a long way to go, Seattle has improved and continues to improve our bike corridors (see Seattle Bicycle Master Plan).

2019 is the 100 year anniversary of the 19th Amendment, securing women’s right to vote after an 80 year effort by valiant suffragists. The picture above, called “The New Woman,” painted by Edward Lamson Henry in 1892, was taken at an exhibit on Women’s Suffrage at the Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. The picture likely depicts one of the brave women of that time, bucking the cultural norms of the day by putting on odd clothes and getting outside to exercise. The intent of this article is to inspire the brave women of Seattle to get on their bikes and start a new environmental revolution, to find their freedom and own their right to the roads. Listed below are some reasons to get on the saddle and ways to overcome barriers to riding.

Motivators for bike commuting:

  • To avoid traffic and frustration
  • Fun, exhilaration, and invigoration
  • To get regular, consistent exercise
  • Great for the environment – zero carbon impact (or nearly zero if use of electric assist)
  • To be outside and communing with nature
  • Quality time to oneself or time with friends and family
  • Empowerment: the independence of transporting yourself with your own strength builds agency
  • Contributing to the greater good – actively being part of the solution

Challenges and solutions to bike commuting:

  • Poor bike lanes and infrastructure
    • Map out trip prior to leaving home (see SDOT bike map)
    • Ride as far to the right as is safe, barring grates, car doors, debris and terrain hazards
    • Decide whether it’s safer to turn left like a car or like a pedestrian
    • Take residential streets instead of arterials without bike lanes
    • Ride on sidewalks when in doubt (this IS legal in Seattle)
    • Highest risk areas are at intersections: make eye contact with drivers, use hand signals and assume other’s don’t see you
    • Report bike lane problems to SDOT (Find it Fix it app)
    • Contact your city counsel member and ask them to support bike infrastructure
  • Home and family responsibilities5
    • Consider use of a cargo electric bike and/or bike trailer to transport kids and run errands
    • Cycle with kids/spouses to school and work
    • Work with partner to relieve you of your regular duties 2x/week
    • Cluster errands on route home
  • Rain and other inclement weather6
    • Lower tire pressure in wet and icy conditions to improve friction
    • Wear layers, with a wool base layer. Avoid polyester since it holds odors
    • Always carry a rain jacket (pants are optional)
    • Cover helmet with a rain guard
    • Use fenders and/or mud flaps
    • Wear gloves that are wind and rain resistant
    • Use booties that cover feet to keep warm and dry
    • Bring hand and foot warmers.
    • Wear protective eye gear (clear or yellow lenses in low light)
    • See and be seen
    • Be aware of slippery surfaces: rainbow/oily patches on roads, sewer covers, wet leaves, metal, painted surfaces
  • Riding in the dark
    • Wear bright/reflective clothing
    • Have at least 2 rear lights and a front head light that projects 500 feet (usually greater than 200 lumens)
    • Pay attention and ride without distraction (no ear buds)
    • Ride defensively, assuming others on the road cannot see you
  • Bike maintenance
    • Basic bike check before riding: 
      • Check air in tires
      • Check brake pads 
      • Check that chain is intact and greased 
      • Make sure quick release wheels are tight
    • Find a good bike shop and have bike tuned every 6 months
    • Keep bike clean to minimize wear and tear (e.g. brake pads)
    • Take a basic bike maintenance class (Cascade Bike Club, School of Bike, Wright Brothers, Bike Works)
  • Grooming
    • To avoid having to change clothes, ride slowly and dress in movable clothing that limits odor (e.g. wool).
    • Roll clothes to place in bike bag
    • If no shower services at your work/school, pack a toiletries bag with essentials (dry shampoo, washcloth or wipes, brush, makeup, etc)
    • Allow for time to get dressed/refreshed when you arrive
  • Low confidence
    • Ride with experienced cyclists
    • Take bike skills class through organizations like Cascade Bike club
    • Learn or review the rules of the road
    • Make a plan and take small steps (e.g. have bus pass to ride part of way)
  • Physical aches and pains while riding
    • Ride a bike that fits your size 
    • Get a bike fit from a skilled PT
    • Learn about bike fitness training and conditioning from a PT or bike coach

The facilitators to a positive riding experience:

  • Good planning: knowing the safe routes and having appropriate gear for the climate and terrain
  • Good bike lanes
  • Well tuned and maintained bike
  • Safe riding habits
  • Appropriate clothing
  • Good bike fit
  • Riding with friends/groups
  • Allotting enough time for ride and clothing change

If it is “as easy as riding a bike” then we would all be on bikes. If you are considering getting back on your bike, take a moment to write about what motivates you to ride, what prevents you from riding, and what you need to achieve your desired lifestyle change. Then call on your resources, get back on the saddle, and enjoy the ride!


1 Cascade Bike Club, https://www.cascade.org/womxnbike
2 We Are Cycling UK, https://www.cyclinguk.org/article/campaigns-guide/women-cycling
3 How to Get More Bicyclists on the Road https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/getting-more-bicyclists-on-the-road/
4 Making Cycling Irresistible,  http://www.cycle-helmets.com/irresistible.pdf
5 Barriers to Cycling for Ethnic Minorities and Deprived Groups http://content.tfl.gov.uk/barriers-to-cycling-for-ethnic-minorities-and-deprived-groups-summary.pdf
6 Cascade Bicyle Club https://cascade.org/learn-tips-biking/riding-rain